Talent: a breed apart ?

Jul 18 2005 by Print This Article

Are people still seen as an organisation's most valuable asset? Business leaders are quick to say that they are, but when it comes to that other pet sound bite - the war for talent - they may not be referring to all of their supposedly most prized assets.

Talent management, by definition, means nurturing and developing those people identified as having ability and potential, and it should form part of any organisation's recruitment and retention strategy.

Many organisations are only really worried about retaining and developing their top talent and 'hi-pos'
But increasingly, when organisation talk about talent and its management, many are only really worried about retaining and developing their top talent and 'hi-pos' - individuals with the highest potential.

It's an issue that rankles with many HR and business experts, including Chris Bones, the Principal of Henley Management College.

He says, "There is a world of difference between talent and the potential to lead an organisation. Ascribing the label 'talent' to the very limited number of people who could actually run an organisation is a perfect example of the way organisations are actually failing to see people as a valuable asset."

So how should organisations define talent? One web dictionary definition describes talent as a 'special aptitude, faculty or gift' of a person.

Is it aligned with great intelligence? Albert Einstein is quoted as having said, 'I have no particular talents. I am merely inquisitive.'

So maybe not, although some might argue that an inquisitive mind and a thirst for knowledge are qualities associated with talented people.

In their book 'Managing Talented People', authors Alan Robertson and Graham Abbey depict highly talented people as a breed apart, with very different values and levels of motivation from the majority of people.

They described an elite band of high-impact, but high-maintenance individuals who think differently - and faster – and get bored more readily; need different kinds of challenges, and can deal with more complexity but are more complex in themselves.

They get frustrated more readily and express themselves readily. In short, they are a different kind of person, and they need a different kind of management.

While no one would argue that managing talent at a senior level has an integral role to play in meeting the strategic challenges of an organisation, it can overshadow the wealth of talent waiting to be developed elsewhere, and which in some ways, can be more important to the organisation.

Tom Crawford, director of solutions consulting at Bernard Hodes says: "As we continue move towards a service-based economy the biggest impact on the consumer comes from those people working at ground level.

"It is their performance that determines whether or not a customer decides to come back to the business. That talent also needs to be nurtured and developed."

The definition of talent also varies enormously between sectors – the talent exhibited by an individual in a supermarket will be different to those of someone who works in an airport.

He also points out that talented people are not necessarily ambitious, but deserve the same amount of investment in their development as those who are.

Crawford says, "In a values-led, worklife balance-conscious society, many of those individuals who would once have doggedly pursued ambitious career paths, are quite content to reach a certain level in their career and stay there.

"They are no less committed to their job, and therefore no less important to an organisation than the high fliers chasing the top positions."

The Institute of Management, meanwhile, defines talent management as a means of identifying, releasing, and guiding untapped potential in people. This implies not only being able to manage those bright high flyers that are hungry for success, but also adopting a flexible and developmental approach to all members of staff.

But talent management is more than just another HR process. It requires a holistic and integrated approach, because in spite of the idea that talent is a natural ability, left undeveloped, it could remain dormant and hidden forever.

Henley's Chris Bones is inclined to agree. A talent management strategy, he says, should be one hundred per cent inclusive, and not focused purely on leadership development.

"There are only three things that can bring competitive advantage to a company," says Bones. "Its brand, the technology it uses to produce a patented product – which is becoming increasingly rare these days - and its people.

"It is the people who work for you and no one else who leverage the strengths of your brand and your technology to achieve that competitive advantage."